Your penance: marriage

Should tying the knot automatically follow premarital sex?

George Asoghig

George Asoghig

SN&R Photo By Larry Dalton

To help bridge the gap between the “Have-Gods” and “Have-Nots,” SNR is bringing together three faith leaders and pitching them the real-life ethical questions that spring from their communities. Venturing beyond biblical references and high-minded philosophies, our hope is to give voice to the complexity, insight and compassion inherent to any spiritual calling. And while we’re breaking bread with the godly, we might also shed light on some unfounded stereotypes.

Forgive me for being one-track minded, but there’s something about sex and religion that never fails to arouse my interest. Perhaps it’s the titillating quality of taboo, or the residual guilt that lingers from my teenage years, when the most consuming issue in my life was To Do It or Not To Do It. That is, for many young people choosing between eternal life or the proverbial “little death,” the ultimate question.

Of course, even more interesting than the (exquisitely torturous) decision process is what happens after the deed is done. In a black-and-white world, premarital sex is necessarily followed by one thing: tying the knot. Or should I say noose? While I’m sure some people end up with a match made in heaven, for many—like, for instance, the couple I know whose miserable marriage was predicated on a sinful blowjob—the results are disastrous. And yet some religions, as we shall see, still operate from the belief that forgiveness is not enough to teach young people the gravity of their carnal mistake. In such cases, you could be paying for one act of misguided passion—which, let’s face it, probably wasn’t even that great—with the lifelong imprisonment of unholy matrimony.

My girlfriend and I are 20-years-old and both very active in our church, which is strongly against premarital sex. In a moment of weakness, we gave in to our urges, and now we’re riddled with guilt and confusion. Is getting married the right thing to do?

“In my opinion, yes,” opened Father Asoghig of St. James Armenian Apostolic Church. “Marriage is the right thing they have to do.”

Father Asoghig

SN&R Photo By Larry Dalton

This pronouncement was delivered in an appropriately somber, baritone voice, as if the Great Decider himself had suddenly descended on SN&R.

Asoghig’s insistence on doing the right thing may seem harsh or old fashioned to our sex-obsessed American sensibilities, but in his native Syria, “People feel shameful doing premarriage sex,” according to Asoghig, who served 10 years in the priesthood there before a “family problem” prompted him to divorce his wife and move with his children to Greece. Four years later, upon the request of his mother—“so she could take care of me and my children”—the Armenian Apostolic Western Diocese relocated him to the United States.

The priest’s matter-of-fact response had the effect of a stern father’s raised hand subduing everyone into silence. The only person at the table who appeared unfazed was Asoghig’s own son, George, an earnest 16-year-old who had introduced himself by stating, “I’ve been a believer since I was 8-years-old—and I try to keep it that way.”

The gaping pause was filled by Father Michael Kiernan, a quintessentially jolly and surprisingly easygoing Irish priest from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sacramento.

“They’re young,” Kiernan began carefully in his lilting Irish accent. He noted that, in his extensive work with couples who come to him for premarital counseling, he has “a huge experience of people who have ‘tried to make it right’ and, actually, disaster comes later.” This happens most often in the form of shotgun marriages, where one or the other spouse ends up claiming the only motive for marriage was the pregnancy.

Mike Klagenberg

SN&R Photo By Larry Dalton

“Also, of course, sin is forgivable,” Kiernan continued. “If you make one mistake—and I think this is a fallacy that people fall into sometimes—they do something wrong, and then they feel, well, now that I’ve done something wrong, might as well keep doing it. … But everybody in the world has committed sin, so everybody needs forgiveness.”

“Forgiveness is good,” Father Asoghig said slowly, “but don’t you think if forgiveness exists, the person will be thinking, ‘I will do this mistake and go to church and confess, and God will forgive me’? Once, twice. … It’s going to be a habit, to do the mistake and get the forgiveness.

“In my opinion,” he continued, “forgiveness is good, but it is not enough to educate such people, because they are too young, they will be in temptation several times. It is a natural want from God. They would promise they would not do this mistake again, but they will do it. Again they will, once and twice and more.”

George leaped in to elaborate on his father’s version of tough love.

“People get the wrong idea of forgiveness. They say, ‘If I commit this sin, God will forgive me, so I’m going to do it and then ask for forgiveness and then start again.’ But what they don’t understand is that forgiveness has to come from your heart. You repent, and you say, ‘OK, I’m not going to do it again. I’m sorry, God forgive me.’ That’s forgiveness. So in my opinion getting married is the right thing, because God put Eve next to Adam so they can be together. In this generation, people are marrying for pleasure. But marriage is for building a relationship with the specific other and committing to them, sticking with them, becoming one with the other person. And having a baby is a God-given present.”

Father Michael Kiernan.

SN&R Photo By Larry Dalton

The one voice that had not yet been heard belonged to Mike Klagenberg, director of special affairs for Sacramento’s Church of Scientology. Like Asoghig, Klagenberg has experience as a single parent, having come to Scientology 17 years ago while raising two kids on his own and “looking for some answers.” His first response to the presented scenario was to establish that, as a Scientologist, he operates from the perspective that man is basically good.

Raised in the Roman Catholic Church, Klagenberg draws similarities between the Catholic process of confession and Scientology’s procedure. The main difference, he explained, is that the Scientology approach uses a more arduous form of “ethical counseling,” designed to assist individuals in making “self-determined choices to improve themselves and solve their own problems.”

Klagenberg pointed out that the parties in question are experiencing guilt and confusion because they “violated their own set of standards,” and the only way to resolve their conditions is to “describe, in the confessional procedure, every aspect of the truth … so that the individual really has to confront what they’ve done, who they are, their own actions and interactions … and on the other side of that is an incredible amount of freedom.”

Kiernan returned to the matter of forgiveness, emphasizing that there has to be “a desire to admit the wrong and make amends.”

Has he encountered this situation?

“Oh, many, many times,” he replied. “This would be an unusual couple nowadays, in the sense that a lot of people have sex before marriage, and even have sex with several people before marriage. … In fact, now one of the major challenges we get is that kids are having so much sex with so many people that it’s not fun anymore.”

Sex no longer fun? Of all the punishments God could dole out on a lusty sinner, that may be the worst.